In June 2021, Reflection Canyon above Lake Powell shows a “bathtub ring” of rock exposed as lake levels drop to historic lows. The Colorado River Basin states’ plan would save 3 million acre-feet of water by 2026, but experts say a longer-term plan is needed to meet rising demand and a prolonged drought that continues to drain the river. (Photo courtesy of the National Park Service)

WASHINGTON – Arizona, California and Nevada unveiled a plan Monday to save 3 million acre-feet of water in the Colorado River by 2026. This is a temporary measure to buy time until the authorities come up with a long-term plan for the river.

The plan, years in the making, comes just days before a May 31 deadline, when the Biden administration threatened to impose federal cuts if states can’t reach their own agreement.

Under the proposal, which still has to be approved by the Bureau of Reclamation, California would agree to cut about 1.6 million acre-feet, according to published reports. It’s unclear how the rest of the cuts will break down, but it’s likely Arizona will make up the balance, said Sarah Porter, director of Arizona State University’s Kyle Center for Water Policy.

“There’s so much Southern Nevada can do, and it’s only three states,” Porter said.

Porter called the proposal “a step in the right direction,” but others said it would only buy time as officials overhaul the way water is distributed from the Colorado River.

Rep. Greg Stanton, D-Phoenix, said on Twitter that while the deal represents a “procedural way forward,” it “doesn’t solve the long-term issues … it’s using drought dollars from the Inflation Reduction Act to literally buy time .”

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But Rep. Ruben Gallego, R-Phoenix, praised “our state’s water managers and negotiators for finalizing a deal that protects the Colorado River system.”

“Thanks to their efforts, Arizona will have a more stable water system and a chance to restore our reservoirs in the coming years,” Gallego said in a statement posted on Twitter.

The Colorado provides water to 40 million people and electricity to millions, but its flow has been steadily declining for the past two decades amid what scientists say is the region’s worst drought in 1,200 years.

Officials sounded the alarm back in February when Lake Powell’s water level reached an all-time low. That has prompted speculation that the lake — one of two major reservoirs on the river, along with Lake Mead — will drop to a “deadpool,” a level at which water can no longer flow through Glen Canyon Dam, which generates hydroelectric power.

“Unfortunately, Lake Powell’s Deadpool is a climate inevitability,” Taylor McKinnon said in an emailed statement from the Center for Biological Diversity.

“It is long past time for federal agencies to plan for water allocation and endangered fish recovery in the context of this inevitability,” McKinnon said in a statement. “The days of using vast amounts of Colorado River water to grow cow feed like alfalfa must be over.”

This winter, the river received a reprieve from unusually heavy snowfall in Colorado and heavy rains in California.

“Both Lake Powell and Lake Mead are going to really grow this year because of the good snowpack,” Porter said.

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However, the agreement only extends to 2026, when a long-term strategy, which is currently under discussion, will be presented.

When asked how the latest proposed cut would affect Arizonans, Porter said “we’re still not at a point where we’re looking at people actually feeling it,” explaining that Arizona has already gone to significant reduction in water supply this year.

“This year, Arizona accepted 592,000 acre-feet of uncompensated reduction and then added another couple of hundred thousand acre-feet of compensated conservation,” she said. “So Arizona is already approaching a million acre feet this year without this additional agreement.”

The reductions have come from farmers in Central Arizona, Porter said, but she believes some cities have the ability to reduce water supply and still “meet demand at the tap.”

She emphasized that the reductions are voluntary, but will involve agreements between the Bureau of Reclamation and various water rights entities, such as cities and tribes.

McKinnon said the plan doesn’t go far enough.

“This temporary solution does not address the long-term challenges of climate-induced displacement and river decline,” he said in a statement.

Porter said hydrology is a guessing game, and climate change and the over-distribution of river water are making that game even more difficult.

“You’re constantly trying to guess the future hydrology, and that’s what it’s really about,” she said.


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